Thursday, May 24, 2001
Before I got on the boat, I knew I would screw up somehow.
I was sure I''d unlatch a really, really important cable and the mast would fall over or I''d sit on the rudder and break it in two or grab the wrong handle--only to learn it''s a flare gun--shoot it off and set fire to the sail.
Something would happen. It wouldn''t be smooth sailing.
I knew this because I''m cursed.
Though it wasn''t my fault, the last time I''d been on a sailboat, it sunk. It was 12 years ago and I was sailing with a girlfriend. Her name was Liza and it was her boat.
The last thing I remember Liza saying as we pushed her little sailboat off the dock and into the Hudson River just north of New York City was something like, "I couldn''t find the plug, but it''s OK. If the wind blows hard enough and we go fast enough, it''s no big deal." With that, we set sail with a hole in the hull.
The wind didn''t blow hard enough.
The boat sank.
Fast forward to 2001 in the Monterey Bay and the same landlubber sets foot on a sailboat called the Tinseltown Rebellion. The boat didn''t sink but the curse claimed an innocent winch handle, a faded red metal arm about the size of a hammer. When the jib lines need tightening, it''s the thing you snap on one of the small chrome winches atop the deck and start cranking.
The first time the boat captain gave me something to do, I knew I''d been right about the damned curse all along--I dropped that red winch handle right into the Monterey Bay.
It was a Wednesday evening, and I was on a 22-foot sailboat named after the Frank Zappa album Tinseltown Rebellion. Cam Lewis is the clear-eyed skipper and owner of Tinseltown and the occasion was the weekly Sunset Series sailboat race at the Monterey Peninsula Yacht Club. It''s a casual but competitive club race that''s also known as the "Beer Can Race." For local sailors, like Cam''s foredeck crewmember Karen Loutzenheiser, it''s a chance to get on the water and break up the workweek with a mini-Saturday. Instead of having just one weekend a week, Beer Can Races make it more like having one and a quarter. Add it up and you get one extra weekend day a month.
One reason it''s such a break from ordinary time is because sailors, like other sportsters, habitually congregate after the contest and split a beer or two, hoist a few cocktails or apple juices and yuk it up about what fun the last three or four hours were. Rugby players, hockey players, golfers, racers of all kinds--athletes who aren''t so serious that they''re nerds--love their fun and when the sweating is done, they know it''s time to regroup, throw some farm flesh on the barbecue and keep the buzz going. The Sunset series, which lasts from April to October is all about keeping that buzz, that camaraderie, going.
All through the race, Cam had a cooler full of good beer stashed down in the cabin of Tinseltown, but cocktail hour was still a long way off when that red winch handle hit the drink.
It was more than just my buffoonery that jettisoned the red crank. There was supposed to be a third crewman on the boat that day, a barrel-chested bearded guy named Matt Seidenzahl. Maybe if Matt had been there, I would have been just perched off the side of the boat, nothing more than breathing ballast ("rail meat," in the sailing vernacular). But back at the yacht club, Cam had waited for Matt as long as he could. He never showed up at the dock before the race, so Tinseltown shoved off, just making the start. (Turns out Matt had been in a fender-bender on his way to the harbor.)
For all the laid-back ease with which sailors seem to... ah... sail through life, the start of a race is chaos. It''s like starting a horse race without a gate. All the racers orbit around the committee boat, behind the starting line jockeying for what amounts to an unofficial pole position.
Cam Lewis is really good at finding that all-important position. A sailor since he was eight, Lewis grew up in a house in Rhode Island that''s nearly as old as the United States. He went to the Coast Guard Academy and was in the service for 11 years, doing all kinds of duty, from chasing drug runners in the Caribbean to crossing the Atlantic on the famous tall ship, the Eagle. He''s a compact guy with big eyes and according to some folks who rib him back at the club, a big ego too. But it''s not puffery. He''s good.
Every time a boat wins the Sunset Series the crew gets a cocktail glass emblazoned with the club flag in red. Cam and Matt and Karen have so many, they give ''em away.
"My parents back East have a set of eight," Cam says. Cam was still an officer in the Coast Guard when he ended up in Monterey, teaching calculus at the Naval Postgraduate School. He''s never lived beyond the whiff of salt water. If he had to live inland, "there better be a big damn lake there." It''s one of those things that is in his blood: Cam comes from a long line of mariners, his ancestors were fishermen that lived on Lewis Island in the cold waters off Scotland.
But Cam''s boat is slightly evolved from the ones his distant relatives piloted. Tinseltown is one of the internationally popular designs known as a J22. It''s a very competitive craft that takes a crew of three, but as evidenced by the Beer Can Race, will still move fast with an able crew of two. It''s got a long mast with a mainsail, a jib, and a spinnaker. The J22 can turn on a dime and in a recent race in the San Francisco
Bay, Cam and Karen had Tinseltown keeping up with boats twice as long with five times as many crew.
Three years ago, Matt and Karen had been crewing on another boat--not a J22--when Cam bought Tinseltown. They joined him right away. Matt said he switched boats not to be on Cam''s crew, but because Cam drives a J22. As Cam says, "Good sailors gravitate toward them."
Cam eventually sailed circles around most of the racers, but before he did that, I donated his winch handle to the Monterey Bay ecosystem.
It happened on the way to the start actually. The wind was squirrelly and we were running late, so Cam decided we should put up the spinnaker--a lightweight parachute-like sail that balloons out in front of the boat.
Short crew, I became responsible for deploying the spinnaker. I was to pull the spinnaker out of its basket and toss it out over the water in big armfuls. With the spinnaker up, Karen would take down the jib.
That''s exactly what I did, I threw it out over the water in big armfuls as fast as I could. Once it got some wind and stood up, it looked as if some kind of a tool--a flashlight perhaps?--was cradled right in the fold at the bottom. "Hey, there''s something in there," I say, reaching out to see what it was. Whatever it was, maybe I could have grabbed it, maybe if I had pulled the spinnaker back in really fast. Just then, the wind straightened the fold and a red metal arm with a knob on one end popped out, arcing slowly through the air. Then it splashed in the bay. "It''s a winch handle," Karen says. Somehow it got bundled up with the spinnaker.
We could all see it in the water as the boat floated past and if Cam had a third arm he could have snatched it. But we were going too fast and had to make the start. With an expletive, he says, "Ahhh, I''ll just get another," and we plowed on.
Once he got out to the start--minus one winch handle--Cam got close enough to the committee boat to read a small tote board with the race number. It was A20, which is the course, "Lovers [Point]--G [buoy]--Finish."
Less than a minute later, the race was underway and we were headed out toward Lovers Point.
Talking to Cam and Karen afterward, it turned out the race was no breeze, the wind had been unsteady. (It was all the same to me, but I knew something wasn''t right when Cam started yelling at the wind for not blowing hard enough. That happened a few times.) Pulling back over the finish--all alone--I ask Cam "Did you just win?" Scoring is done on a handicapped system because of different boat sizes, so coming in first might not be a win.
"I think so," says Cam and with that, three open beers appeared in the cockpit.
"Winning is never easy on this boat," Karen says. Cam''s nemesis, a sailor named Jack was three or four minutes behind.
According to lore, there are actually two races to every sailboat race. There''s the race itself and then when the race is over, there''s the race to the dock. Weaving through the harbor back to the club, Cam and Karen describe in detail the official cocktail of Tinseltown.
It''s called a MOP, which stands for Meyer''s dark rum, Orange juice and Pineapple juice. The potency of a MOP is measured by how dirty you order it. One with a lot of rum in it would be a "filthy MOP."
Inside the yacht club after a round of dirty MOPs, Cam comes out of the crowd and announces, "We won."
Soon enough we''d be sharing a rather filthy MOP out of yet another First Place cocktail glass. No one mentioned the red winch handle.